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A Caribbean feast

No gloomy introspection here. No brooding commentaries by self-absorbed aesthetes. This is decidedly Caribbean art, vibrant, playful, eclectic, full of visual ideas from the rich palette of cultural and historical influences that makes this region such a delight for travelers and an inspiration to its artists.The latest exhibit at the IDB's Washington, D.C., headquarters, "Mystery and Mysticism in Dominican Art," shows a cross section of an artistic tradition that is thoroughly modern in its means of expression, but at the same time rooted in local traditions.

The recent exhibit focuses on the three main historical currents in Dominican art: that of the ancient Tainos and their deities and mythologies, a folk art infused with religious mysticism and, finally, the modern practitioners, which include eight painters.

"Dominican artists tend to appropriate and recreate ideas of whatever provenance," write Marianne de Tolentino, Dominican art historian, and Félix Angel, curator of the IDB Cultural Center, in the exhibit catalogue. "They aim to achieve expression that is both evocative of the past and characteristic of the present day."

The historical underlayering of Dominican culture and art is quite similar to that of other Caribbean countries. The Taino Indians were eventually dominated by the aggressive Arawaks, who in turn were conquered by the Europeans --in this case, the Spaniards. Then followed the arrival of African slave laborers. In the Dominican Republic, wars among Spain, the Netherlands, England and France added more elements to the ethnic mix, but at the same time contributed to an era of general poverty and little cultural vitality.

After independence in 1844, a national Dominican style in the visual arts began to develop that followed the European model but often incorporated native themes. In recent years, Dominican artists have increasingly reached into the past for images, such as the ancestral figure, generally represented by a mixture of animal and human forms. Ongoing research and archaeological discoveries continue to serve as a source of ideas and images.

The African legacy is particularly strong in Dominican culture and art, expressing itself in bright colors, schematic depiction of the human figure and a tendency to fill the background in with detail. In the last 30 years, influences from the United States and South America have also been felt. Overall, the effect has been one of energy imbuing Western "universal" art with pronounced local themes.

"Dominican art alludes to human drama, experience, fables, obsessions, dreams or fantasies," write the authors of the exhibition catalogue. Its styles can be related to the major 20th century artistic movements, but according to the authors, "self-expressionism always wins out."

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